Was consistency really Brett Gardner’s problem in 2011?

You know how if you repeat a word enough times, it loses all meaning to you? That’s the way I feel about the word consistency coming from baseball circles. That seems the solution to everything: Player A just needs to be more consistent (with the optional addendum, “in his approach”). Problem is, consistency is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a game as complex as baseball. At least, consistentcy as we commonly understand it.

No player will get a hit exactly three times in each set of 10 at-bats. No player hits a home run once every 17 plate appearances. Baseball is a game of streaks and slumps. Players help their teams immensely when they’re hot, and they hurt them when they slump. Even the best players aren’t immune to periodic slumps. It’s just the nature of the game.

Still, it seems as though some players are more prone to streaks and slumps than others. Take Nick Swisher for example. When you watch every game, it seems clear that he goes through periods of extraordinary production, followed by periods where he makes outs almost every at-bat. Last year it was easy to get the impression that Brett Gardner was likewise prone to streakiness. In an article on MLB.com, Bryan Hoch gets quotes from Joe Girardi, Kevin Long, and Gardner himself seemingly admitting that Gardner’s streakiness is a problem. But was that really the issue in 2012?

Again, it’s hard to determine exactly what everyone means by consistency. But a glance at Gardner’s 2011 game log makes it appear that streakiness was something of an issue. To start the season Gardner went 9 for 62 (.145) with four walks. He was also caught stealing in half of his six attempts. But after a 3 for 4 performance in a 12-3 rout of the White Sox Gardner broke out. From that point, April 28th, through mid-August he hit .314/.397/.429 in 374 PA. Again, look at his game logs during that period. it lingers in the .330 and .340 levels through May, mostly because he had to compensate for his poor start. But then it starts to creep up.

From June through mid-August he was consistently in the .350 to .360 OBP range. Yes, his numbers spiked and dipped a bit, but again, all ballplayers experience those little peaks and valleys. It seemed that Gardner was, indeed, rather consistent throughout this period. He was even more consistent on the base paths, successfully stealing a base in 80 percent of his 41 attempts. Unfortunately, he then slumped his way to the finish line, hitting .175/.281/.246 through his final 146 PA. He claims that he felt fine as the season wore on — “the best I’ve ever felt at the end of a season,” he said — but that didn’t translate into performance.

That brings us back to the idea of consistency, which seems no easier to define after examining Gardner’s 2011. His poor performances seem to come in the form of bookends, but does that mean he’s more consistent than we perceived? I don’t think so. Timing is an odd concept in baseball, and it often affects our perception. Two guys could have the same numbers during the course of a month, but we’ll view the guy who had a hot first half in a different light than we do the guy who had a hot second half. Yet they contributed roughly equally to their teams performances.

It’s difficult to work on an abstract concept such as consistency, especially in a game that is chock full of randomness. It sounds great, and makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But chances are Gardner has more specific, concrete things to work on: bunting, offering at pitches he can slap past infielders, and other things an undersized outfielder must do to succeed. If that makes him more consistent, all the better.

2012 Season Preview: The Strikeout Kings

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

A pitcher can do nothing better than record strike three. Strikeouts take the defense right out of the equation, meaning hits, errors, weird bounces, and everything else is impossible. It’s not an accident that pitchers with high strikeout rates traditionally have lower ERAs since keeping the ball out of play means nothing bad can happen.

The Yankees had the American League’s best strikeout staff in 2011, leading the circuit with 7.54 K/9 and 19.7 K%. At 8.46 K/9 and 22.2 K%, the bullpen missed more bats than any other unit in the league, which is a great way to protect leads in the late innings. At least part of that high strikeout rate had to do with the arrival of pitching coaching Larry Rothschild, who has a history of improving strikeout rates. The Yankees figure to again have a dominant strikeout staff in 2012, one that could be even better than last year given a new arrival and good health.

CC Sabathia
After posting a mid-7.0 K/9 in each of his first two years in pinstripes, Sabathia had the second best strikeout season of his career in 2011. His 8.72 K/9 and 23.4 K% were the sixth and fifth best marks in the AL, respectively. During one stretch from late-June to late-July, CC struck out 72 batters in 54.2 IP across seven starts, good for an 11.85 K/9 and 35.5 K%. He tied his career-high by striking out 13 Brewers on June 30th, and just about a month later he set a new career-best by fanning 14 Mariners.

The strikeout boost appears to have come from an increased usage of his slider, as Sabathia broke out his top offspeed offering 26.6% of time in 2011 after using it no more than 18.5% from 2008-2010. Batters did not make contact on 40.9% of the swings they took against the pitch (54.6% vs. LHB), which is just ridiculous. His changeup drew a swing and miss 33.2% of the time as well. That’s just silly, the guy’s offspeed stuff was just unhittable last year. With any luck, that’s something Rothschild has instilled in Sabathia and it’ll carry over into this year.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Michael Pineda
Few pitchers were better at getting strike three last season than Pineda. The young right-hander struck out 9.11 batters per nine with a 24.9 K%, the seventh and sixth best rates in all of baseball. Right-handed batters had a three-in-ten chance of being struck out by Pineda, which isn’t terribly surprising given his lethal fastball-slider combo. Even his 20.7 K% against left-handers is pretty strong, impressive for a guy that doesn’t really have a changeup. Batters missed 39.3% of the time they swung at his slidepiece.

Pineda is working on that changeup now, but maintaining a strikeout-per-inning rate is a very tough to do regardless of ballpark or division. His strikeout rate might take a step back in 2012 just because it’s hard to ring up that many guys each time out, but Pineda has more than enough stuff to miss bats regularly. An 8.0 K/9 and 22.0 K% going forward is more than doable. If he improves that changeup to the point where it’s a usable third pitch, the sky is the limit for team’s new hurler.

Boone Logan
This might be a bit surprising, but Logan has missed a ton of bats during his two years as a Yankee. Last year he posted a 9.94 K/9 and 24.9 K%, the former of which was a top ten mark among AL relievers (min. 40 IP). His strikeout rates against left-handed batters — 11.20 K/9 and 28.8 K% — were among the very best by southpaw relievers. Over the last two years, Logan owns a 9.26 K/9 and 23.7 K%. Boone can be maddening at times, but he uses his fastball-slider stuff to regularly prevent hitters from putting the ball in play. There’s not much more you can ask from your lefty specialist.

Rafael Soriano
The world’s most expensive setup man battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness during his inaugural season in New York, but at least Soriano missed bats regularly. His 8.24 K/9 and 22.0 K% were essentially identical to his strikeout rates with the Rays in 2011 (8.23 K/9 and 24.1 K%) thanks to his fastball-cutter-slider repertoire. Right-handed batters swing and missed with 30.5% and 34.5% of the swings they took against his four-seamer and slider, respectively. That’ll work. With career marks of 9.49 K/9 and 26.4 K%, there is absolutely no reason to think a healthy Soriano will do anything but generate whiffs in the late innings this summer.

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

David Robertson
The king of the strikeout heavy staff, Robertson’s dominant 2011 season was built on his career-best strikeout rates: 13.50 K/9 and 36.8 K%. Both rates were top five among all big league relievers and the second best among AL relievers behind only Al Alburquerque (min 40 IP). Batters came up empty on 35.0% of the swings they took against his curveball, which is just ridiculous.

Robertson’s strikeout ways are nothing new. He’s never whiffed fewer than 10.40 batters per nine or 26.0% of the batters he’s faced in a single big league season, and he doesn’t discriminate either. Robertson’s strikeout rates against right-handers (11.19 K/9 and 28.9 K%) and left-handers (12.98 K/9 and 33.7 K%) are both through the roof. He’s already had a minor injury scare this spring, but assuming Robertson comes out of this bone bruise fine, he’ll again be counted on to lead the setup staff in 2012. The strikeouts will come pouring in.

Mariano Rivera
The greatest reliever of all-time saw his strikeout rate take a huge dip in 2010 (just 6.75 K/9 and 19.6 K%), but Rivera rebounded in a big way last season: 8.80 K/9 and 25.8 K%. Mo’s strikeout rate has actually improved with age, and his K/BB ratio has been quite literally off the charts for years now…

Rivera’s famed cutter has generated a swing and miss just 20.8% of the time during the PitchFX era (19.8% in 2011), which is relatively low compared to the primary pitch of most high strikeout relievers. Of course Mo has historically great command and generates an ungodly amount of called strikes; ~20% of the pitches he’s thrown during the PitchFX era have been called strikes, well above the ~16% league average. A little less than 11% of all the plate appearances against Rivera have ended with a called strike three during that time, again well above the league average (~4.5%). Strikeouts are great, but they’re even better when the hitter doesn’t bother to take the bat off his shoulders.

The 2012 New York Yankees All-Projection Team

Much of the 2012 Yankee offense's fortunes are riding on your shoulders, pal. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

After an offeason’s worth of projections, it’s finally time to aggregate everything and see just how good our beloved pinstripers look on paper. Loyal readers will recall I did this last year, as well.

Below you’ll see each player’s final 2011 line, along with their average 2012 projected line. In this instance, the average has been compiled from the eight major projection systems — Bill James, CAIRO, Oliver, Rotochamp, PECOTA, ZiPS, Steamer and Tango’s Marcel. Despite the variations in calculation method with each system along with the fact that they’re not all park- and league-adjusted, I’ve found that a straight average of the systems’ projections generally winds up being a fairly reasonable benchmark.

Additionally, I’ll repeat the immortal words of SG one last time: “Projections are inherently limited, so remember to take these for what they are. They are rough estimates of a player’s current talent level, and are not predictions.”

Offense

The Yankees will, for the umpteenth year in a row, feature a robust offensive attack in 2012, with no starter projected to have a below-league average (.316 in 2011, for your reference) wOBA. Derek Jeter looks to be the weakest component of the offensive attack, though he’ll outhit that .324 average projected wOBA if he comes anywhere close to replicating his second-half surge last summer. Derek’s high-water projection is James’ .333 wOBA, while ZiPS thinks Derek is essentially cooked, with a .309 projection.

After a bit of a disappointing campaign with the stick in 2011, Brett Gardner should get on base more frequently assuming he gets his IFFB% closer to his career figure of a still-worse-than-league-average 14%, rather than last year’s 19.6% (which nearly lead the league). Rotochamp loves itself some Gardner, with a .343 projection, while Oliver is unimpressed and thinks Gardner will continue to hit the skids with a .320 wOBA.

Russell Martin projects for more OBP and less power than he showed in 2011, though I think we’ll see a stronger campaign from Russell in 2012, due in part to a presumed increased comfort level along with a desire for a substantial free-agent pact. James likes Martin for a high-water .355 wOBA — a level he’s only exceeded once — while Marcel has Martin falling to .311.

Both Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano are projected for significantly less-potent seasons, though in my opinion those are pretty conservative estimates and I feel comfortable expecting at least a .375 wOBA out of the Yankees’ two most potent offensive forces. Rotochamp likes Granderson at .379, while Marcel and Oliver are each at a much more bearish .351; Rotochamp also has the high-water projection got Cano at .369, while Steamer is at .355.

The Yankees’ two former heavyweights, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, are also expected to help continue to carry the offense. At .370, Tex actually has the most significantly improved average projected wOBA on the team, representing a .009 increase from his actual 2011 production. James likes Tex for a .382 wOBA; while Marcel has him at a non-park-adjusted .357 for the low-water mark. A-Rod‘s average .361 projected wOBA is exactly what he put up in 2011, although component-wise the systems see slightly more power for Alex and slightly less OBP. While at this point I don’t know that it’s reasonable to be disappointed with Alex posting another .361 wOBA year in his age 36 season, if he can stay healthy it also doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a wOBA somewhere in the .370s or higher. Strangely enough, PECOTA — which doesn’t really like anyone, and generally saves most of its venom for aging veterans — actually boasts the most optimistic A-Rod forecast, pegging him for a .509 SLG and making him one of only 15 players in all of MLB the system even projects to SLG above .500 (Tex is in there, too). On the flip side, the ever-negative Oliver sees Alex regressing to a non-park-adjusted .350 wOBA.

If we plug each player’s projected OBP and SLG into Dave Pinto’s Lineup Analysis tool, we get a lineup projected to average roughly 5.3 runs per game against lefties (with Andruw Jones at DH), and the same against righties (with Ibanez at DH). The Yankees’ runs-per-game averages for the last five seasons starting with 2011 are 5.4, 5.3, 5.7, 4.9 and 6.0, so 5.3 for the starting lineup should be just fine.

Starting Pitching

Though Sweaty Freddy is expected to begin the year in the bullpen I’ve thrown him in for comparison’s sake. Unsurprisingly Freddy also projects as the least-effective of the six starting candidates. Despite a horrid season, most projection systems still love Phil Hughes, with Bill James going so far as to project a 3.71 ERA/3.82 FIP (albeit in 102 innings), while the ever-pessimistic PECOTA also appears to still be a Hughes fanboy, projecting a 3.84 ERA over 135 innings.

None of the systems think Ivan Nova can reproduce his 2011, although Marcel’s non-park-adjusted 3.88 ERA/3.89 FIP is the most optimistic. On the flip side, PECOTA thinks Nova’s a joke, with 156 innings of 5.03 ERA ball.

Both Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda‘s average projections seem eminently reasonable to me in the AL East; truly, if the Yanks can record a second straight season of three starters giving 100-plus innings of sub-4.00 ERAs (thanks to CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia) — something that hasn’t happened for the Yankees in back-to-back seasons since 2001-2002 — needless to say they will be in excellent shape.

For those interested in simulations, the most recent iteration of CAIRO (run over a month ago) had the 2012 Yankees as the best team in baseball, at 97-65 (five games ahead of Tampa Bay); Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA also has the Yankees with the best record in baseball, at 95-67 (five games ahead of Boston); and even THT’s get-off-my-lawn Oliver forecasting system has the Yankees with the best record in baseball, at 95-67 (three games ahead of Boston).

While, as per usual, many things will need to go the Yankees’ way for the team to reach these projections, it’s tough to quibble with a roster universally projected to be the best in baseball heading into the season.

Injury Updates: Nunez, D-Rob, Kontos, Burawa

Look alive, David. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees and Joe Girardi provided some injury updates following last night’s loss to the Red Sox, so here’s a recap of the news courtesy of Jack Curry and Chad Jennings

  • Eduardo Nunez will take three full days off as he tries to come back from a right hand contusion courtesy of a hit-by-pitch last Monday. He was originally supposed to start at shortstop last night, but he felt some pain in the hand during batting practice and was scratched as a precaution. The longer he’s out, the more important Bill Hall and Jayson Nix become.
  • David Robertson spend some time on a elliptical machine yesterday and could run on a treadmill today. He hasn’t felt any pain in his right foot since shedding his walking boot on Monday. If all goes well these next few days, Robertson could be back on a mound as soon as this weekend after missing a few days with a bone bruise.
  • George Kontos came through yesterday’s live batting practice session a-okay. It was his first time facing hitters since tweaking his oblique earlier in camp. He’ll officially re-enter the competition for the final bullpen spot when he makes his exhibition game debut on Friday.
  • Dan Burawa‘s torn oblique is going to shelve him for quite some time, as you probably expect. “It could be a while,” said Girardi last night. “I’m not sure … I haven’t gotten a timetable.” Burawa wasn’t a candidate for that last bullpen spot, but he was slated for Double-A Trenton and this injury sounds like it’s going to extend into the regular season.

Damon: It wasn’t about the money, but Yanks said no anyway

As the Yanks’ off-season unfolded and their DH platoon needs came into view, Johnny Damon‘s name surfaced amongst the Yankee rumors. Damon, a free agent whose numbers likely suffered in the Trop last year, is shy of 3000 hits and still unemployed. I wasn’t too keen on his return to the Bronx and made a rather flimsy case for him. By the time I warmed to the thought of a Damon reunion, the Yanks had locked up Raul Ibañez.

On Tuesday, Damon, still unemployed and hoping for any job offer, took to the airwaves. On SiriusXM, he spoke with Casey Stern and Jim Bowden, and of course, the conversation came around to the Yanks. What happened with the Bombers, Stern asked.

“The only conversation was me reaching out to them because obviously at this point in my career, I would like to have some say on who I can and can’t play for it,” Damon said. “I just wanted to make sure Cashman knew it wasn’t about the money. Pay me whatever, and I’ll try to help you win a championship.”

According to Damon, Cashman basically said thanks, but no thanks. The Yanks’ GM told the free agent that he and his scouts believed Ibañez would be a better option in the outfield because Raul had the chance to play the field for a few years. Damon defended his defense, saying he didn’t have a spot patrolling the Tampa Bay turf because the rest of the Rays’ outfielders were among the best in the league. “I like to think that my legs are a bit fresher,” he said. His arm, of course, is another matter.

Furthermore, Damon claimed that since he hits left-handed pitching so well and the Yanks already have Andruw Jones, he wasn’t a great fit. Cashman, he says, didn’t want to take at-bats away from Jones. “They brought in Andruw Jones to hit left-handed pitching and I actually do that more than right-handed pitching,” he said. Last year, Damon hit southpaws better than he did righties, but historically, he has been a better offensive threat against right-handers.

I’m not sure if we should make much of this at all. It sounds to me as though the Yanks’ reasons for pursuing Ibañez over Damon were a bit flimsy. The club isn’t really expecting Ibañez to be more than fifth outfielder on the depth charts. Maybe he’ll hit; maybe, playing his age 40 season, he won’t. He’s 2 for 21 during Spring Training, but no one on the Yanks is doing much hitting so far.

In an ideal world, perhaps the Yanks would have Ibañez and Damon in camp together competing for one job. If Damon’s words are true, he may have been willing to do that. For now, though, that ship has sailed. Damon appears to be lobbying Detroit for a job, and the Yanks will cobble together a few hundred left-handed plate appearances from Ibañez and others. Damon’s was the reunion never meant to be.

Join the RAB Bracket Challenge

On Monday we introduced the first ever RAB Bracket Challenge, March Madness bracket pool hosted on ESPN.com. If you haven’t joined already, please do so by clicking here and adding your entry to our group. We’re giving away prizes from the RAB Shop, but no RAB hoodie can match the feeling of knowing you bested all your fellow readers. Either way, be sure to join and give it your best shot. For those of you who have joined and filled out a bracket already, it’s not too late to change your entry and have Syracuse getting knocked out a little earlier than you did before. Tough break for the Orange. We’ll be around to answer any questions in the comments.

ST Game Thread: Ivan Nova’s Third Try

You have to walk, Aviles. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Earlier today we briefly discussed Ivan Nova‘s recent fastball command issues, which is something he’ll try to correct against the Red Sox tonight. The game itself doesn’t mean anything, but because it’s part of the rivalry it will surely get more attention than it actually deserves. Hopefully Nova gets his fastball going where he wants, hopefully everyone makes it through healthy, and hopefully the Yankees win. If they don’t, no big deal. We’d all sacrifice the latter to ensure the first two go well. Here’s the starting lineup…

CF Brett Gardner
C Russell Martin
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Raul Ibanez
RF Andruw Jones
2B Bill Hall
LF Jayson Nix
SS Doug Bernier

RHP Ivan Nova

Available Pitchers: RHP Mariano Rivera is scheduled to follow Nova. RHP David Phelps, LHP Boone Logan, LHP Clay Rapada, RHP Cory Wade, LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Adam Miller, RHP Ryan Pope, and RHP Chase Whitley are also available.

Available Position Players: C Gus Molina, 1B Jorge Vazquez, IF David Adams, IF Ramiro Pena, OF Justin Maxwell, OF Melky Mesa, OF Zoilo Almonte, and DH Chris Dickerson are scheduled to replace the starters.

The game is scheduled to start at 7:05pm ET and can be seen on YES, MLB Network, MLB.tv, or MLB.com. Enjoy.